For a brief moment, it looked like America would have an opportunity to witness a real leader. The kind of guy who — hearing about poverty and human suffering on an island in the Caribbean, among people who look nothing like him — hops on a plane, uses his fame and celebrity to raise funds and thus makes the world a little bit better.
But Carson Wentz won’t be going to the White House today, nor will any of his teammates on the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
And, in a weird way, that’s kind of a shame.
President Trump’s last-minute cancellation of the Birds’ long-planned White House visit — announced less than 24 hours before the pomp-and-circumstance-laden ritual was about to begin — managed to go off like a political bombshell even though you could also argue that it was maybe the least surprising act of his petulant, small-minded presidency.
The late-day announcement on Monday certainly touched off a swirl of emotions — especially in a city that’s still on a sugar high from the Eagles’ dramatic upset win over the New England Patriots in February — and some of those feelings are, frankly, at odds with one another.
On one hand, in a city where Trump barely eked out 15 percent of the vote in 2016 and Hillary Clinton also carried the affluent surrounding suburbs, the fact that reportedly fewer than 10 Eagles’ players had been planning to attend the White House ceremony is something that many would applaud as a rejection of a man not worthy of the respect normally attached to the nation’s highest office. Wide receiver Torrey Smith — a key member of the 2017-18 Birds, since traded — neatly summed up why he and his ex-teammates were staying away, shortly after the Super Bowl.
Philadelphia Eagles wise receiver Torrey Smith said in February that most of his teammates wouldn’t go to the White House. Here was his reason. Sounds about right. pic.twitter.com/12vyVBn1LB
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) June 5, 2018
And yet, Trump’s abrupt rejection of the small Eagles’ delegation — which still would have included the young MVP-caliber quarterback Wentz and coach Doug Pederson — nonetheless had the power to offend, even among Philadelphians who loathe the short-fingered vulgarian currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Some of that was because the rejection came wrapped in the usual bed of lies, with Trump falsely claiming that Eagles’ players had disrespected the military by kneeling during the National Anthem (that kneeling never happened).
But a lot of the anger was, ironically, because of a trait that Trump and the civic id of Philadelphia happen to have in common: We are fueled by our overriding sense of resentment, that people think we are not good enough. Philly is the place where 1 million people on the Ben Franklin erupted with emotion and joy as Eagles’ center Jason Kelce sang, “No one likes us, we don’t care…”
Need to revise the Kelce speech to include “…they said we can’t go to the White House…” pic.twitter.com/dDgkFHxuZj
— David Gambacorta (@dgambacorta) June 4, 2018
Now, the president of the United States doesn’t like us! But we sort of do care! Who does he think he is?! If the angry electrons from Trump’s ill-conceived cancellation doesn’t power the fired-up Eagles to a second straight Vince Lombardi Trophy in 2019, nothing will.
Personally, I was delighted when my two favorites Eagles — Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long — joined Smith last winter in saying they had no interest in meeting with a president who defined players like them — who used the National Anthem as a forum to protest police brutality and other social injustices in America — as a “son of bitch” who should be fired. Why should they shake the hand of a man who so insulted their moral crusade?
But Wentz told reporters he was eager to visit the Trump White House. The QB called it “just a cool way to receive the honor nationally and be recognized” and added: “I don’t view it as a political thing whatsoever.” And the more I thought it about it, the more I thought that, yes, Carson Wentz and Donald Trump should get to know each other.
Not for Wentz’s sake, though. For Trump’s.
Actually, the president — OK, maybe not this president, with his psych-textbook narcissism that renders him incapable of listening, learning or ever acknowledging a mistake — could have learned a lot from the story of how the Eagles became Super Bowl champs, and how some of the team’s star players use their celebrity for the greater good.
True, there was no way that Trump was ever going to meet Jenkins, nor would Trump — who thinks the issue with police brutality is that the cops aren’t being brutal enough — ever be able to comprehend Jenkins’ nuanced goal of better policing in underprivileged neighborhoods, a mission that has led him to meet police brass and ride around with beat cops to see the issue from their perspective.
But maybe — if Trump hadn’t allowed his warped sense of pride to call off the Birds — POTUS could have met offensive line stalwart Lane Johnson. Johnson, as Eagles’ fans recall, is the guy who promoted the “underdog” masks and slogans during the 2018 playoff run, then — learning the NFL was marketing the image on shirts for a profit — insisted that all the money go to struggling Philadelphia public schools.
Trump, you may remember, is the guy who launched a store selling Trump trinkets after he was elected president. He kept the money.
The president definitely could have learned a thing or two from Pederson, the coach and former career back-up quarterback who was constantly doubted by the NFL pundits like Mike Lombardi — who called Pederson the least qualified coach he’d seen in 30-plus years — and responded not by engaging in pointless Twitter feuds, but by lowering his head and getting the job done.
And then there’s Wentz. It’s a lazy cliche to think about the 25-year-old quarterback who tweets his love for Jesus and thinks shotguns are the perfect Christmas gift as a stereotypical Trump voter. Heck, Wentz probably did vote for Trump, since nearly everybody did in his home state of North Dakota, but there’s nothing stereotypical about a young man who’s fast becoming an MVP-caliber humanitarian.
The first sentence of this column referred to Wentz’s recent relief work in Haiti. The quarterback traveled there this spring to volunteer and to make a pledge that he would match donations up to $500,000 to help Mission of Hope: Haiti build a large sports complex for kids in the poverty-plagued nation, still recovering from a deadly 2010 earthquake. To put an exclamation point on that humane gesture, Wentz refused to accept an Eagles fan’s offer of his first-class seat on the flight home.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) April 30, 2018
Trump also had an opportunity, as president, to do good works — for people on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, which lost electric power and saw widespread destruction after last summer’s major storm, Hurricane Maria. Nearly a year later, some pockets still don’t have power and researchers estimate as many as 4,600 or even more died, many of them from delayed medical care.
Since he returned from Haiti, Wentz has upped the humanitarian ante even further. Just last week, Wentz raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his AO1 Foundation with a charity celebrity softball game at Citizens Bank Park; in addition to the Haiti effort, Wentz said he’ll partner with a South Jersey church on a food truck that will deliver free meals (with a side of old-time religion) to the needy.
What Wentz is doing — in an era when civic life is defined by a president who constantly looks for wedge issues like the NFL protests where he can divide Americans — is pretty remarkable. He’s reminding us that in a world where people may disagree about stuff, like guns, there’s still a higher humanitarianism that can bring us together. That would be a powerful message about honest-to-goodness compassionate conservatism to amplify from the steps of the White House — perhaps in some bizarro-world where the president is not named Donald Trump.
These are the young men that Trump is trying today to demonize as somehow unpatriotic, and disrespectful of our military, not to mention Philadelphia fans. It seems to me that these Eagles — who give everything as underdogs on the playing field, only to somehow find even more to give back to society — are the embodiment of the American Dream. A dream that was briefly obscured, on a gray June afternoon, by our long national nightmare.